Elizabeth Balgobin: I broke down in a messy, loud and shocking way

In the latest article in our series on mental health in charity workplaces, the freelance consultant writes about how her early experience of panic attacks taught her the value of flexible interventions

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

This week’s focus on mental health and working in the third sector has reminded me of my first proper, and spectacular, breakdown and the people who helped me. My life and career would have been very different without their compassion and intervention.

I was 24, new in post as a manager at Circle 33 Housing Trust and it was my first experience of paid work in the third sector (housing associations were different back then). It was also a much bigger job than any I had had before, and I didn’t have an easy start. Two of the people reporting to me had applied for the role, the person I had met at interview as my line manager left almost as soon as I started and the recruitment for his replacement had only just begun. On the plus side, I did have the loveliest sunny office on the top floor, where I could close the door when I felt under pressure and needed to concentrate.

One sunny early summer afternoon I had supervision with one of the women who hadn’t got the job. I had my checklist and had done the preparation and it started off well. However, mid-way through the meeting we moved on to performance issues and, as things got difficult, I broke down in a messy, loud and shocking way. I was screaming at my colleague, then crying and hyperventilating, and I would have understood if she had screamed back, walked out and reported me. She didn’t.

Instead she took the initial shock off her face, got up and came around to my side of the desk and held me. She spoke in soft tones, not asking how I was but telling me she was there and that when I was ready she would get help if I wanted it. As I calmed down she stepped back and told me she thought I should go home early – she would tell people that I was unwell. I don’t know what she said to people, but I was not treated any differently when I did return to work. Heroes appear in disguise.

The second person at work to help was one of the directors, who was acting as my line manager during the recruitment process. I did not speak to him when I called in sick the next day but when I, and my GP, thought I could return to work two weeks later I called and spoke to him. He made me a generous offer and provided me with a chance to speak openly; I was allowed to return to work part-time for the first couple of weeks, starting earlier than everyone else so that I could adjust to being around people and building up my days until I felt ready to be full-time again. I was also given the flexibility to take my lunch break at an odd time once a week so that I could go to therapy sessions just down the road.

His intervention did more to quell my panic attacks than anything else and I was back to work in a relatively short space of time. I was with Circle 33 for six years and everything flowed from that decision to give me a chance. I have tried to offer such interventions whenever I have been in similar situations.

It is rare for people to have their own offices, or for there to be a staff lounge or rest room now that every inch of space needs to be as productive as possible. But it is important to remember that the noise of a busy office, the need to be instantly available and just having different working styles can be a strain for some. I have seen some people put on headphones to create their own space but then not take the time to go outside for a physical break at lunchtime. Lunch and other breaks are important: managers should encourage people to take them so they come back refreshed and ready to be productive.

Finally, make sure you include mental health first-aid in your training plan, step up if you see someone needs help and, if someone has helped you, then pay it forward.

Elizabeth Balgobin is a freelance consultant

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